The yellow back of the light rail barely shined over the top of the makeshift iron wall in the decaying courtyard, strewn with broken bricks around a waterless, rusted fountain.
The cold gust from the train blew mercilessly over the hard earth and kicked up brittle leaves among the stalk-still camera men, set designers and actors.
What was once the courtyard in-between The Cedars is now one of the scenes from Ana’s Playground, a short film shooting in Cedar-Riverside this week.
Mounds View native, director, writer and stunt man Eric Howell, who has worked on films like “Fargo” and “The Mighty Ducks,” wrote the script for this short film to get the word out about child soldiers worldwide.
Howell said the film is about “when a child has to choose ideology over humanity” and it sheds light on the mobilization of child soldiers around the globe.
Howell said Cedar-Riverside is the only set location he had in mind because of the mammoth, soaring apartment architecture and “Hitchcock” towers that make the scene ominous and ambiguous.
Project spokeswoman Beth Gilles said by adding several props—like the rusted fountain, metal walls and a burnt-out car—the crew was able to turn The Cedar’s courtyard into an Eastern European war zone.
All of the proceeds from the production will go to NGOs that aid in the disarmament, demobilization and rehabilitation of child soldiers, according to the film’s website.
According to the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers’ 2008 global report, children were actively involved in armed conflict in 19 countries or territories between April 2004 and October 2007.
Brian Barber, director for the Center for the Study of Youth and Political Violence at the University of Tennessee, defined a child soldier as anyone under 18 who participates in formal service for an armed group.
Barber, who has spent time with youth in refugee camps in the Gaza Strip and done studies on the effects of war on adolescents in Bosnia, said “most of the research on child soldiers…suggests that they pick up and move on with their lives very well.”
Short of stopping war, or stopping children from being involved in war, Barber said reintegration programs run by NGOs are very important.
“There are opportunities postwar to move on, for education, employment, for reconnection with their families,” Barber said.
Local talent helps the cause
Besides Howell, the project is relying on other local talent. The actors are mostly children from the area, and the youngest is 7 years old.
Over the weekend, the actors received a soccer camp from Minnesota Thunder forward Leo Gibson.
Since the film is centered on the idea of soccer as a uniting force. Gibson, who emigrated from a war-torn Liberia, showed the children some of his moves.
One of the actors, Immanuel Grace , 10, who plays Alec in the film, said Gibson taught him how to “drop kick” a ball and play some defense.
Grace got his start in acting by performing in a commercial and auditioning for this and another film. But some on set didn’t have such a conventional entry point.
Nick Rogen, a recent DePaul University graduate and Twin Cities native, fell into his job as director’s assistant when he came home on a work break.
Rogen said he helps Howell handle the story boards, shot lists and the day’s schedule.
Because the crew only has a week to film there is a lot of pressure for efficiency.
“We can’t afford to have to go back,” he said.